The following is from Ian Bassingthwaighte’s novel, Live from Cairo.
An American attorney, Egyptian translator, & Iraqi-American resettlement officer try to protect a refugee who finds herself trapped in Cairo.Ian Bassingthwaigthe was a Fulbright Grantee, has been honored with Hopwood Awards, & was a finalist for the Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative. His work has appeared in Esquire, Tin House, & other publications.
Six months ago, Dalia walked into Charlie’s office for the first time. Her anxiety had condensed in her legs. “I can’t sit,” she said. “My legs are . . .” Dalia waved at them. “I would just need to stand up again.” Dalia examined the room as if she might find a lost article pinned to the wall or left on a shelf. A letter, a picture, a key. The search delayed but didn’t preclude her introduction. At last, Dalia offered her name. She said she was from Baghdad and had lost her husband. Not because he’d died, but because he’d left her. “Not his choice. I told him to go.” A world map was on the wall. Dalia put her finger where her husband fled to. Her finger covered the entire state of Massachusetts. Her arm crossed the Atlantic. “It looks so close, doesn’t it?”
“Well, it’s a small map,” said Charlie.
Years of her suffering and years of his loneliness met where they stared at the wall.
“Can you help?” Dalia turned. “Please, the truth.”
“I can write your testimony and submit your case. The rest is up to other people, who don’t work here. Sometimes I think they don’t work at all. They’re very slow.”
“For an initial decision? Just from the UN?” Charlie hesitated. “Six months. A year. Maybe longer.”
Hearing time discussed that way—as if it moved slowly, but no matter what—actually comforted Dalia, a little. “What do you need from me? A signature? A payment?” Please, not a payment. If Charlie asked for a payment, what would she do? Promise to pay later? Never pay?
“Just where you came from and why you left.”
The relief was immense, but temporary. Dalia had always thought of her life as simple, short, often tragic, but punctuated by moments of such joy that she couldn’t imagine changing much. A line running from the past to the present. Describing that line, however, was precarious. She couldn’t tell the whole story. Not to a stranger. Not to a man. “There are things I can’t say.” Dalia thought she might never be able to say them.
Charlie offered Dalia a ballpoint and a legal pad. He was practiced, it seemed, in handling such a predicament. Dalia thought his pen trick might work. A pen would allow her to move at her own pace without a live audience. Clarity and chronology were no longer pressing issues. The only downside, so far as she could tell, was that speaking the words let them dissipate in the air, whereas writing preserved them. “Are you going to read this?” asked Dalia. “Can a woman read it instead?”
“I’m sorry. Sabah’s desk is . . .” Charlie gestured to his own desk by way of example; it was buried in paper. “She has no bandwidth. Not today. Maybe never again.” Charlie laughed, or tried to laugh. His fake laugh was so obvious. He turned red. “Plus, whoever reads what you write—me or someone else—will pass the information along to the UNHCR in the form of a written testimony. From there, the information is public record. Not generally public, but a lot of eyes will read your story. It’s the nature of the beast, I’m afraid. I’ll wait outside. Don’t rush. Write everything.”
Dalia pressed the tip of her pen into the legal pad. The black dot grew over time as ink soaked into the paper. Her mind wandered to Omran’s missing eye; the bruised socket had been almost as dark. Dalia thought she might as well start there. The origin of that physical injury could be identified and the cost could be described. It was an easy entrance to a darker place, where much worse things had happened. The ink dot grew into a line, a letter, a word, a sentence, and finally the story Dalia never wanted to tell:
My husband’s abduction began with a dent in his head. At least, that’s how Omran remembered it. He said he woke up with what felt like a dent. He couldn’t touch the spot with his hands. They were tied behind him. But his head felt dented. Or broke open, with the brain coming out. A headache, he said, like no other. The ache ran all the way down his neck into his spine. Even his ears hurt like he was deep underwater. The skin surrounding the point of impact—he’d been clubbed with a rock—burned, and the pain radiated outward from there, like someone had scratched raw a large area of skin and rubbed salt in the wound. No light penetrated the bag over Omran’s head. He tried to pray and scream and stand up in order to escape. His captors were smart, or at least systematic. In addition to tying his hands, they’d also tied his feet. They’d tied his hands to his feet. He couldn’t even sit up comfortably. They drove Omran to a cellar somewhere in the city. Right away they dug out his eye. They provided a single mercy during what Omran called the “prolonged extraction.” Each time he woke up, they beat him to sleep again. A few words he remembered only because they shouted them so many times in his face. Traitor! Atheist! American!
Omran talked about the experience only once, shortly after his release. I cried the whole night while he sat at the kitchen table and shook with tremors. The morphine, the shock, the pain of trying to explain how he survived. I couldn’t endure his bewilderment. I asked him to stop so I could vomit. Cruel, I think, to ask him that. I didn’t vomit. I just stood over the sink for a long time spitting. He didn’t know and couldn’t ever know what I’d done to free him. He only knew what he felt. The gag, the blindfold, the beating. The feeling of being thrown from a moving car. He felt his skin rub away on the pavement. He felt the sun beating him. He felt my hands lifting him into the sitting position. He felt more hands lifting him into a car. He felt the doctor cleaning his eye socket. He screamed that he needed to see me. The doctor turned his head. Omran saw me in the chair and he wept.
Maybe that’s too close to the end of my story. Maybe it’s better to start with the war. When the Americans came, Omran said to me, “The sooner they win, the sooner it’s finished. God willing.” He gestured out the window at the Green Zone. We couldn’t see the Green Zone from our window, but we both knew it was there. “There must be something I can do to help.” I said he didn’t know how to shoot a gun, fly a helicopter, or read a map. War maps are more complicated. How could he possibly help? What if he found danger? What if he died? “If you die, I’ll find another man,” I said. Not to cause pain, but to dissuade him. “To kiss, to marry, to have children.” Omran laughed and touched my wrist. He said his bones told him he wouldn’t die. (His whole family had strange bones. His father had bones that found water; his mother had bones that found lies. Prognostic bones were Omran’s inheritance.)
Construction. That’s what Omran did. He rebuilt exploded pipes and sewers for contractors working for the US Army. An engineer brigade. When my city turned inward and started shooting itself, when it turned inward and blew up its own infrastructure, Omran dug ditches, poured cement, and brought back the water. “For washing,” he’d say. “Hands, vegetables, dishes. Infants in the sink.” Infants appealed to Omran more than they’d ever appealed to me, but I still promised we’d have one. “Several?” he asked every time the subject came up. “By one you mean ‘several.’”
Neighbors knew Omran moved dirt with an American shovel and disapproved. What neighbors, I don’t know. What militia they contacted, I don’t know. Maybe no neighbors. Maybe militias gathered information another way. I don’t mean to blame my neighbors with no evidence except a betrayed feeling. Feeling betrayed isn’t evidence, is it? Omran was abducted in the name of God, which they screamed in his face when they stole him. Who, exactly? And why? All I knew was that my husband was gone, feared dead. My only hope was that he was held for ransom. Not executed. What good was Omran shot dead? His body had no value and his death would convey no message that hadn’t been conveyed already, a thousand times.
I expected the Americans would say one of their own went missing. Omran had labored and made friends and had worked for their army for months. Did Omran not deserve rescue or the money to secure his release? The embassy cited limited resources and a policy of non-negotiation. The soldier watching the door said, “I’ll pray for you.” I don’t remember the young man’s name or even the sorry look on his face, except to say it was sorry. At the time, I couldn’t bear to observe such a bad omen.
How could I secure Omran’s release without money? I sold the jewelry, the computer, the furniture. The cash in my pocket was my only hope for my husband. I sought him by seeking the nearest cleric to our house, who people said had abandoned God for more profitable opportunities. Like connecting militias to recruits. I had not gone to that mosque in some time, since before the war. When I saw him again, he didn’t hide who he’d become. He barely greeted me. I told him what happened. I handed him cash. He shook his head like he couldn’t help, but I could see the truth in his eyes. He wanted more money. I had nothing left to sell except myself. “Is that worth something to you?” I asked. He didn’t even hesitate. His hands fell like rocks upon me.
What to do next besides clean myself? Go home? Wait in despair? No, I couldn’t. I couldn’t bear the stillness. So I continued my search. I searched for Omran every day by walking and shouting his name, and shouting the cleric’s name at the door of his holy hiding place to embarrass him; he would have to keep his promise to quiet me. His face beat red until I found my husband gagged and blindfolded in an alleyway after more than a week, when even my heart said he was dead. A note was stapled to his chest: Leave now in the name of God. The blood around Omran’s eye had dried and the wound was closed by its own swelling. My heart swelled with love and gratitude and surprise and hate and regret. At the hospital, the doctor said Omran’s eye socket was, considering the circumstances, in good shape. The captors, he said, must’ve given antibiotics. The doctor asked Omran if he’d taken pills during his captivity. Did he know what kind? For pain or infection? Omran had said, “I don’t remember. I can’t remember. The information has gone.” He cried my name when he saw me.
Soon after, I packed the car—Omran in the backseat so he could lie down—and drove around the city in a kind of delirium. We had nowhere to go except back to the Americans. They took some responsibility. Not all, but some. Contractors had been persecuted before for their association with the US Army. Had been shot, had been tortured. There was a special, expedited resettlement program for survivors like us. The caveat being violence must’ve resulted from an association with the US Army. Not religious beliefs or preexisting ethnic tensions. Not even ethnic tensions exacerbated by the American war. The embassy wanted proof that Omran’s blood was their responsibility. And that more blood would spill soon. Written threats, corroborating witnesses, police reports. The only threat we had was leave now or die written in pencil. No reason was listed and no sender was marked. We had no witness. No police report. How could we go to the police? Who loved to punish victims, not perpetrators? Who said rape was adultery? And the woman was whipped? What evidence could we present them? Omran’s empty eye socket? Only to be laughed out or arrested for lying?
We didn’t leave our country because we were barred from doing so. We didn’t leave our city because we had nowhere to go. Home, then, for lack of other options, where an unknown enemy lay in wait. The intruders came to our house the same night. They shot the wall, the floor, the window, and finally Omran. Once in the shoulder and again in the meat of his thigh. He held his stomach to fool them into thinking they’d struck his gut. He moaned for a few seconds and stopped breathing. The intruders saw a man killed by his wounds; they saw a wife killed by her grief. “God is great,” they said, fleeing.
We didn’t go to the hospital. I looked at Omran’s wounds and told him he wouldn’t die. He didn’t have permission to leave me. Omran said, “The pain.” I said, “The morphine.” Prescribed by the doctor for his eye. Omran took a large dose and said, very disoriented, that we needed to get into the car before he fell over. If he fell over, I would have to carry him. He apologized for being fatter than he was at a younger age and less handsome. “My bones,” he lamented. “My bones don’t work. They haven’t worked in a long time. I’m sorry I lied to you.” I plugged the wounds with cotton balls and tied scarves around to stop the bleeding. He could only walk on his right leg, so I bore the rest of his weight. I drove to the Americans at a speed enabled by my terror. “Look what they’ve done!” I yelled from the far side of the gate. “You didn’t believe us before, but look!” I shouted so loud that I spit. The spit convinced the Americans of what the truth had not. That Omran’s service had put his life in danger, and also my life. Thank God, for they expedited his paperwork. My husband was granted the right to go to America. But the good news came with a catch. Omran could go, but I couldn’t. Not without a marriage certificate issued by the Social Status Court.
The what? I said we were born in a village where the memory of our pledge was enough. We didn’t marry in the same village, but one like it. Not Baghdad. Not close to Baghdad. Not anywhere near the Social Status Court. “What else can I do to prove I love my husband?” I asked. “I don’t have those papers. There’s no way to get those papers. Those papers don’t even exist.” The Americans said proof of love was not required, but proof of marriage; a document, rather than a feeling or the memory of an event. Unless I could produce the guests who were there and those guests would submit to questioning. The Americans had forgotten they’d started a war! That people had died! That people had scattered!
Omran held my arm like a cane. “I won’t leave you,” he said. “Don’t bother asking.” I wanted to peel his hand away, but I let him rest. “If you don’t go,” I said, “the intruders will return. Ten bullets in your head, Omran. Not even you can survive that. You’re stubborn, not immortal.” He wept and finally had to sit down. I gave him no option. I told him to go. Thank God his departure was swift. I had no time to fear his absence. It was suddenly before me.
I remained in Baghdad for one month. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I couldn’t sleep. So I got in my car and drove to the border of Jordan, then along the King’s Highway through the Sinai to Cairo. Visas didn’t matter by then. People were flooding out. Every border had a queue. You could pay money to skip the queue, but what money did I have that I didn’t need for food and water and gas? The only thing I wanted was to make it to Cairo alive. When I finally arrived days later, I found Cairo was only safe in comparison. I was an immigrant in a land that didn’t want me. I meant to steal work they didn’t have. To implant my sorrow in a place that had too much grown from its own troubles. One night on the train, a man pinched my breast and told me to go back to Iraq. “Go home,” he said. And I wanted to, badly. Except home stopped being a place the day I met Omran. Not the same day, but one day, ambiguously, when I discovered I loved him. I was so young. That day I knew I would marry Omran and saw in his eyes that he’d known his whole life that God had pushed him, hard and fast, toward me. Now that he’d arrived, he was so glad. Gladder still that his affections were returned. And that I would be with him.
“Is there more?” asked Charlie when he finished reading the letter. The pages displayed ink smears where tears had fallen and been wiped away. “Please tell me there’s more.”
“Halas,” said Dalia. “It’s finished.” She watched Charlie’s heart beating through his shirt until she realized it was just a fan blowing the fabric.
“Why’d you flee Baghdad after Omran left? What’s life like in Cairo? Why can’t you stay here?”
“I told you. You’re holding it.”
Charlie scrutinized the pages, front and back. The backs were blank except for the ink that had bled through the paper. “More specifically. The details matter. More than they should, I’m afraid.” Dalia waved away his request. Telling stories was lonely work. Charlie pretended not to see the gesture. Or needed glasses, badly. He asked the same three questions again. Why’d you flee Baghdad? What’s life like in Cairo? Why can’t you stay here?
“Telling stories is lonely work,” said Dalia, and not politely.
“Hm. I’m sorry, but I need to know.”
“Today? Right now?”
“Well . . .”
Dalia couldn’t endure his calmness. She walked down the hall to the door, down the street, down the stairs to the metro. The train went down under the river. An hour later Dalia lay down on her bed. Really, her couch. A week passed before she could will herself to go back to the office. How to get to America without Charlie’s help? How to get Charlie’s help without trusting him? How to trust him without telling him everything? Dalia continued the exhausting process—hour-long meetings scheduled over several weeks—by explaining where pain lives. “In the clothes Omran didn’t take with him. In pictures from before the war. Even in George’s despondent meow. The poor cat. He never liked me very much, but he loved Omran.”
Later Dalia told the story of her flight to Egypt. Not a flight so much as a long, troubled car ride. Her desire to survive weighed more than her fear of driving the dangerous route from Baghdad. The car broke down in the Sinai. Dalia had to walk twenty kilometers before she saw another vehicle. She carried food and water and pictures, minus the frames and the glass panels. The cat stayed behind in the car. “How wicked,” she said, “to leave George.” Dalia shielded her face with her hands and wept for several minutes before she could speak again. “I shut the windows so he’d die faster. I didn’t want him to wander around in the sun and be afraid and suffer for hours. He would’ve died anyway. It would’ve been worse.”
That wasn’t even the most dismal part of her story. Before Dalia took the King’s Highway to Cairo, the cleric she’d once bribed with her body returned and raped her again. He didn’t knock on her door. He just opened it. “Don’t look at me like that,” said Dalia, rebuffing Charlie’s pitiful gaze. “I didn’t even want to tell you.” Nor did she want him to tell Omran. What if Omran didn’t understand? Her entire being said he would understand, except for the part of her brain where fear lived and reason couldn’t penetrate. “Don’t tell him. He can’t know.”
In time Charlie circled back to his hardest question, though he was shrewd enough to change its verbiage. Why can’t you stay here? became Why isn’t Cairo a durable solution? Dalia was still annoyed but nevertheless had an answer prepared. It had taken her a few sessions to distill the myriad reasons into one immutable truth: “I can’t work. If I try to work, I’ll be arrested. If I’m arrested, then . . .” Charlie nodded as if he already knew what would happen. Then why ask? He took copious notes and even recorded the conversations on tape. “For backup,” said Charlie, gesturing to shelves full of cassettes. He appeared overwhelmed by the sheer number. “If only our system weren’t so . . . antiquated.”
Dalia didn’t want to know who Charlie was, where he came from, or what kept him at his desk all day. Obsessive-compulsive disorder? Glue? She only wanted to know what the lines on his face meant. Was he affected by her story? Was that empathy? Not fatigue? No, thought Dalia. It wasn’t possible that her story had affected him. Charlie must’ve heard the same story, and ones much worse, a thousand times. More than a thousand times, judging by the number of tapes. Charlie was just tired. Her story meant nothing to him.
From Live from Cairo. Used with permission of Scribner. Copyright © 2017 by Ian Bassingthwaighte.